Two years into a pandemic, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude just isn’t cutting it. We talk to Dr Denise Quinlan, the Co-Founder of The New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience about why we’re tired of being told to be resilient… and why we’re so tired, full stop!
If there was a Bingo list of the words and terms we’ve heard over the past two pandemic years, somewhere in amongst ‘social distancing’ and ‘unprecedented’ would be the word: ‘Resilient.’ As in, what we are expected to be. But the conversations around resilience can often be missing the point, says Dr Denise Quinlan, Co-Founder of The New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience.
“There are some really clear trends emerging and how I would characterise that is… everyone is sick of being told to be resilient!” Denise says. “Since March 2020, they’ve been hearing this – and God love the people in Christchurch, since 2011. In luckier places, people are at least being given some useful strategies, but in less fortunate places, it’s the old message of ‘take a concrete pill, harden up, bounce back and keep going.’”
Two years into a pandemic, that ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude just isn’t cutting it. People are tired and people are stressed and, short of the entire world getting a month-long tropical vacation, solutions aren’t looking particularly forthcoming at the moment as we all balance pandemic fatigue, general fatigue and the warped expectations that we should be aiming for ‘business as normal.’
So what are we dealing with, and what are some solutions? Denise takes us on a deep dive through a general look at the mental health state of the nation.
Why We’re Tired Of Being Told To Be Resilient
“In most places, the focus has been on individual resilience – and don’t get me wrong, that is very important. Most of us can benefit from strengthening our personal resilience. But we all know that a big part of resilience is connection. And what we are now seeing is that the organisations that really got that – whether you want to call it belonging or inclusion, psychological safety or a more traditional Te Whare Tapa Whā approach to Hauora – anyone that was doing that work before the pandemic and has kept it going, is in better shape now.”
Denise cites research from the MIT Sloan School of Management that ‘The Great Resignation’ now taking place around the world is driven by toxic workplaces – and people who feel unsupported or unsafe at work are now leaving as soon as they can. “If organisations want to avoid the Great Resignation and be on the side of ‘The Great Retention’, they’ve got to be willing to go beyond a focus on individual resilience.”
Individual resilience will only take you so far, she says, because it puts the onus on the person, rather than the structural support or the communities around us. “You can get better about your self-care, you can start focusing your attention carefully, you can be really good at prioritising. But at a certain point, usually when the going gets really tough, it is the people around you – your whānau or your colleagues, who lift you up and keep you going.”
“We ignore collective resilience at our peril. When we talk about individual resilience, we do ourselves a disservice, because we’re only focusing on a one part of the picture. The really powerful stuff, I believe, is our collective resilience.”
The importance of belonging for our sense of psychological safety is not to be underestimated as we go through hardships, Denise says. “The way to get through this isn’t to bury your head in your personal trench so that you can keep going. It’s actually to lift your head up and connect with others. When we have a sense of belonging and inclusion, that’s what allows people to keep going, that’s what allows organisations to keep going. And it makes it all feel a bit better.”
There is also some comfort, Denise says, in knowing that this time is hard on everyone. Once Aotearoa was protected from Covid-19, now we’re not. Once Auckland and Northland were the main centres to be affected by Covid-19, now it is a country-wide pandemic. At this stage of the pandemic, nobody has escaped unscathed. Misery loves company, or at least is less resentful of it. How badly you have been affected however, depends on many things.
“It depends on who you were, where you were, what resources you had, and your priorities going into it, so there’s no one answer to how this pandemic has affected people,” Denise says. “It has been enormously varied across our population. So one of the helpful things we can do for each other is to ask, ‘How is it for you?’ and not make assumptions.”
Why We’re All So Tired (Generally)
One of the biggest challenges wrapped up in the pandemic is that even before Covid-19 hit, we lived and worked in a society that expected too much from us already – and those expectations have only grown since.
“We arrived into this pandemic already in a pandemic of perfectionism.”
“We really need to accept that we’re in a perfect storm,” Denise says. “We arrived into this pandemic already in a pandemic of perfectionism. Most of us met the pandemic at full gallop, working at max effort, trying to be perfect. And once it hit, we were still trying to be perfect. Still trying to achieve our strategic goals AND cope with the pandemic. And it all comes tumbling down.”
“We really have to address our perfectionism head-on,” she says. “And the opposite of perfectionism is compassion. It’s compassion for our mistakes, our shortcomings. It’s about embracing the idea of ‘real, not perfect’.”
Denise recalls a virtual project management conference she spoke at in Australia in October 2020,. “At that time, we thought Covid might only take 12 months,” she says. “And the advice from senior strategic planners was that organisations should take their strategic plan for 2020 and spread it out over two or even three years. And that was the advice when they thought Covid-19 was only going to be a one-year hiatus. What that is saying is that we really need to acknowledge that this is – and I hate the word unprecedented, because it’s so overused – a massive global upheaval.”
“We have had to completely upend the way we work; our supply chains have been upended and the very nature of the way we teach or work has changed. And the requirements on us to keep each other safe and manage illness have changed our lives completely. So the new strategic plan is coping with the now. That’s the goal: continuing to function, so that we are still standing when it comes time to set some new strategic goals.”
Remembering the wins along the way is key, Denise says. “Instead of just pushing through, could we all stop and take a moment to ask ‘what have we achieved in this time? What are we most proud of?’”
Lowering the bar on what we expect of ourselves – personally and professionally – can tie in with that compassion as well, as we live with the ‘yes/and’ that is pandemic life. “The contradiction that we have to live with right now is that what we really need to do is just find ways to cope with the present – and yet, somehow, in another part of our brain, still keep imagining and hoping for what we’ll do afterwards.”
Why We Don’t Know What Month It Is
Apart from the weather, there’s very little left to distinguish what month we’re in, as the past few years flow together as a sort of grey, chaotic mush. Denise compares it to Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray comedy about a man who is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. “The usual markers of time are gone,” she says. “The normal ebb and flow of the year, with holidays or weddings or 21sts, maybe an annual trip… those things have gone by the board for most people. And so, all we’ve actually been doing is working.
‘The usual markers of time are gone… all we’ve actually been doing is working’
Denise tells of her own Groundhog Day where, just after the national 2020 lockdown ended, she was musing that she wasn’t ready for it to be over because she had enjoyed the time at home so much… and then the next day, she was hit by a car while riding her bike and broke her back. “I did get another lockdown,” she laughs, “locked into a back brace”. “I had an extreme Groundhog Day – got up, moved slowly from A to B, sleep, repeat. And it was just an exaggerated version of what most of us have had.”
As well as the markers of the year disappearing, a lot of people have also found their social circles have contracted as result of being at home so much more. “Those social occasions are where we get out of ourselves,” Denise says. “Frankly – and maybe I’m an exception – but the people at home are the people you moan to. When you go out, you put those things aside and find the cheerful you for a few hours. And we haven’t done a lot of that – we’ve just done a lot of sitting at home with the people we moan to – and some of us, by which I mean me, have been moaning.”
Why We Can’t Remember Anything
The term ‘baby brain’ gets used about a lot by new parents experiencing weeks on end of staying at home and being sleep deprived, but the term ‘pandemic brain’ is also something people are using more and more. While this could also be linked to the lack of markers in our year, Denise says there’s also a far more likely explanation: stress.
“Stress adds another cognitive load to our brains and it chews up our ability to remember well,” Denise says. “Stress makes you remember less, whereas relaxing makes it easier. When you’re relaxed, it’s easier to access your brain’s capacities. One of the earliest mindfulness practices to gain widespread popularity in the West was MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, with improved memory functioning a common outcome.”
“Stress adds another cognitive load to our brains and it chews up our ability to remember well.”
So as well as practising mindfulness to help our poor pandemic brains, Denise says there is another deceptively simple-sounding tool that can help. It’s paying attention to the good things that happen, even in stressful times.
“If we can notice the little golden moments, that makes a disproportionate difference to our ability to cope,” she says. “It literally, on a neurological basis, gives your brain a break. When you can pay attention, when you can relax into a laugh with somebody, your physiology and your neurology change, and it relaxes you and gives you a reset.”
The research is very clear, she says. “Moments of positive emotion, whether joy, relaxation, contentment, love… they literally speed up the body’s physiological recovery from stress. So when it comes to that idea of hunting the good stuff, we’ve got to move past our jaded cynicism and go ‘This shit works, do it!’ Because it’s what allows us to keep going.”